The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent one of the largest and most sustained influences on global research to date. However, charting the effect of these 17 goals on the global research community is a complex task. In this post, Martin Szomszor draws on the findings of a recent bibliometric study to produce a ‘citation map’ of sustainability research, which highlights how the UN SDGs have enabled the development of new areas of transdisciplinary and international collaboration in research.

The world is changing fast. From a rapidly-increasing population, to climate change, to health epidemics, such as Ebola: we are facing unprecedented challenges at a global scale. The most concerted effort to meet these challenges has been the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, launched in September 2015 as “the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. Meeting these goals has required significant work from governments to draw on existing knowledge, and in the future will require vast amounts of new investment in research.

To better understand the global research landscape relating to the Sustainable Development Goals  the Institute for Scientific Information team at the Web of Science Group, examined data from 10,300 unique documents in the Web of Science index. This study reveals how global research is evolving to address poverty, reduce inequality and deal with the effects of climate change.

Our report Navigating the Structure of Research on Sustainable Development Goals provides an overview of the global research activity that’s driving progress towards the SDGs. We used bibliographic coupling to reveal the cognitive distance between documents, so that similar documents could be grouped into clusters with common themes, and created a ‘citation map’ which can be seen below.

(Source: Navigating the Structure of Research on Sustainable Development Goals, p.7, click to enlarge)

The map, which we hope will be useful for both policymakers and the academic community, shows that there is a dual focus across the research landscape. The majority of papers are published in Environment, Agricultural and Sustainability Science (on the left hand side) or Health and Healthcare (on the right hand side).

However, transdisciplinary research is an important theme of our report. You can see many small research areas, such as Water Supply and Sanitation, Poverty and Inequality or Education, Interprofessional Teaching and Volunteer Services, joining the two large domains in the centre of the map. The most diverse clusters in terms of interdisciplinary content are Sustainable Agriculture and Transgenic Crops, Physical Activity and Health, and Ecotourism and Fair Trade.

These transdisciplinary topics are often of policy interest because they represent opportunities to use knowledge from one area and apply it in another. For example, the CRISPR/Cas 9 gene-editing technique links research on transgenic crops, and on vector-borne nematode diseases. Strong connections on the map may confirm or test policy assumptions, while weak connections may point to areas that need development and new policy initiatives.

Another way that we can see research evolving, and developing new connections, is through regional collaboration. Sustainable development is by nature a global concern, and requires joint work across borders. Unsurprisingly, European nations with strong collaborative linkages (for example EU funding) dominate SDG research, while North America and the Asia & Pacific region contribute less, but deliver a similar output. Although North America was often the largest player in many research areas, it was Europe, not North America, that was the second most prolific collaborator with the Asia & Pacific region.

One might think that the SDGs are of paramount concern in Africa, the Arab States and Latin America. By contrast, these regions collaborate less, but that is not to say that they do not invest in areas of regional focus. Our study shows that Nigeria – the largest economy in Africa – produces the most research on Poverty and Inequality and that Tanzania contributes 39.8% of research on Maternal, Newborn and Child Morbidity and Mortality.

This brings home the fact that, rather than compete against one another for ‘top spot’ in rankings, the academic community needs to work together to solve the enormous challenges our world faces. The data already exists to inform better decision making on future evidence-based investment and research. From global and regional collaborations to the identification of new interdisciplinary topics of interest, citation mapping is just one technique that can help get us closer to “a better and more sustainable future for all”.


This post is based on the report, Navigating the Structure of Research on Sustainable Development Goals.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Image Credit: fdecomite via Flickr (Licensed under a CC BY-2.0 licence)

About the author

Dr Martin Szomszor is Head of Research Analytics at the Institute for Scientific Information, at the Web of Science Group. He was named a 2015 top 50 UK Information Age data leader for his work with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to create the REF2014 Impact Case Studies Database.

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